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Rampinini JSS 2007 Factors Small Sided Games soccer .pdf



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RJSP
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Journal of Sports Sciences

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Journal of Sports Sciences, Month 2006; 24(0): 1 – 8

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Factors influencing physiological responses to small-sided
soccer games
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ERMANNO RAMPININI , FRANCO M. IMPELLIZZERI , CARLO CASTAGNA ,
GRANT ABT3, KARIM CHAMARI4, ALDO SASSI1, & SAMUELE M. MARCORA5
1

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Human Performance Laboratory, S.S. MAPEI, Castellanza, Varese, Italy, 2School of Motor Sciences, University of Tor
Vergata, Rome, Italy, 3St. Martin’s College, Lancaster, UK, 4Unite´ de Recherche ‘‘Evaluation, Sport, Sante´’’, National
Centre of Medicine and Science in Sports, El Menzah, Tunisia, and 5School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, University
of Wales, Bangor, UK
(Accepted 26 April 2006)

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Abstract
The aim of this study was to examine the effects of exercise type, field dimensions, and coach encouragement on the intensity
and reproducibility of small-sided games. Data were collected on 20 amateur soccer players (body mass 73.1+8.6 kg,
stature 1.79+0.05 m, age 24.5+4.1 years, V_ O2max 56.3+4.8 ml kg71 min71). Aerobic interval training was performed
during three-, four-, five- and six-a-side games on three differently sixed pitches, with and without coach encouragement.
Heart rate, rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on the CR10-scale, and blood lactate concentration were measured. Main
effects were found for exercise type, field dimensions, and coach encouragement (P50.05), but there were no interactions
between any of the variables (P40.15). During a six-a-side game on a small pitch without coach encouragement, exercise
intensity was 84+5% of maximal heart rate, blood lactate concentration was 3.4+1.0 mmol l71, and the RPE was 4.8.
During a three-a-side game on a larger pitch with coach encouragement, exercise intensity was 91+2% of maximal heart
rate, blood lactate concentration was 6.5+1.5 mmol l71, and the RPE was 7.2. Typical error expressed as a coefficient of
variation ranged from 2.0 to 5.4% for percent maximal heart rate, from 10.4 to 43.7% for blood lactate concentration, and
from 5.5 to 31.9% for RPE. The results demonstrate that exercise intensity during small-sided soccer games can be
manipulated by varying the exercise type, the field dimensions, and whether there is any coach encouragement. By using
different combinations of these factors, coaches can modulate exercise intensity within the high-intensity zone and control
the aerobic training stimulus.

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Keywords: Soccer, aerobic training, exercise intensity, heart rate, perceived exertion, lactate, reliability

Introduction
40

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Soccer is played by two teams of 11 players performing
in an area of approximately 100660 m. However,
during training, it is common to reduce both the
number of players on each team and the size of the
pitch. These small-sided games are one of the most
common drills used by coaches for soccer training.
Whereas in the past small-sided games were mainly
used for developing technical and tactical abilities,
they are now employed by many amateur and professional teams as an effective tool for aerobic training
(Balsom, 1999; Bangsbo, 2003; Drust Reilly, &
Cable,, 2000; Reilly & Gilbourne, 2003). Hoff,
Wisloff, Engen, Kemi and Helgerud (2002) found
that five-a-side soccer drills on a pitch measuring
50640 m produced heart rate responses within the
intensity range previously shown by Helgerud, Engen,

Wisloff and Hoff (2001) to be effective for improving
aerobic fitness and soccer performance (running
interval training at 90 – 95% of maximal heart rate).
More recently, we have shown that 12 weeks of aerobic
interval training performed using small-sided games is
effective in improving aerobic fitness and physical
match performance (Impellizzeri et al., 2005).
Several factors have been suggested to influence
the intensity of small-sided games. These include the
dimensions of the pitch, coach encouragement, the
number of players on each side, and the rules
adopted (Balsom, 1999; Bangsbo, 1998; Hoff et al.,
2002). However, despite a growing interest in
soccer-specific training, no study has to date systematically investigated the effects of these factors on the
intensity of small-sided games. Similarly, no study
has assessed the reproducibility and inter-participant
variability of physiological responses elicited by these

55
Correspondence: E. Rampinini, Via Don Minzoni 34, 21053 Castellanza (Varese), Italy. E-mail: physiolab@mapeisport.it
ISSN 0264-0414 print/ISSN 1466-447X online Ó 2006 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/02640410600811858

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2
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E. Rampinini et al.

drills. Such information could be useful for coaches
and sport scientists in the design of effective physical
training programmes.
The main aim of the present study was to examine
the effects of exercise type (three-, four-, five-, and
six-a-side), field dimensions, and coach encouragement on exercise intensity. A secondary aim was to
assess the reproducibility and inter-participant variability of exercise intensity reached during these
small-sided games.

Table I. Field dimensions of small-sided games included in this
study.
Dimensions

175
Games
Three-a-side
Four-a-side
Five-a-side
Six-a-side

Small
12620
16624
20628
24632

Medium
m
m
m
m

15625
20630
25635
30640

m
m
m
m

Large
18630
24636
30642
36648

m
m
m
m

180

125
Methods
Participants
130

135

Twenty amateur soccer players on the same team
(body mass 73.1+8.6 kg, stature 1.79+0.05 m, age
24.5+4.1 years, playing experience 15+5 years)
were recruited to the study. Informed consent was
obtained after verbal and written explanation of the
experimental design and potential risks of the study,
and the participants’ right to withdraw. The study
was approved by an independent institutional review
board. The project also received formal approval
from the management of the club involved.

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Data collection and small-sided games

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155

160

165

170

The amateur soccer team trained for approximately
2 h two to three times a week (always on Tuesday
and Thursday and, on some occasions, an on Friday
as well) plus the official match played on Sunday.
Physical training was performed using small-sided
games only. No strength or power training was
performed. Data were collected twice a week from
September to June during a total of 67 training
sessions. Data collection was suspended during
December and January to avoid the colder weather
and to exclude possible influences of extreme
environmental conditions on the results. We examined three-, four-, five-, and six-a-side games,
without goalkeepers, using small goals, free touches,
and with the ball always being replaced promptly
when out of play. Scores were considered valid only
when all team-mates were in the opponent’s half of
the pitch. The small-sided games were played on
three differently sized playing areas: a medium-sized
pitch, a large pitch (20% bigger than the mediumsized pitch), and a small pitch (20% smaller than the
medium-sized pitch) (Table I). Each small-sided
game was played with and without coach encouragement using standardized indications (e.g. ‘‘lose your
marker’’, ‘‘find space’’, ‘‘press’’, ‘‘get back in
quickly’’). Encouragement was provided by the same
two individuals (coach and fitness coach). Over the
course of the season, each small-sided game was
performed as interval training consisting of three

bouts of 4 min duration with 3 min of active
recovery between bouts. This was done twice a week
(Tuesday and Thursday) throughout the season.
Each interval training session was performed at the
beginning of a specific training session after a 20-min
warm-up and consisted of low-intensity running,
striding, and stretching. The order in which the
small-sided games were performed during the course
of the competitive season was randomized.

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Laboratory and field tests
To obtain individuals’ reference maximal heart rate,
the participants completed a Yo-Yo endurance test
(level 2) and a Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test (level
1) in September (beginning of the competitive
season), February (mid-season), and May/June
(end of the competitive season) (Bangsbo, 1994;
Krustrup et al., 2003; Williford, Scharff-Olson,
Duey, Pugh, & Barkdale, 1999). All players were
accustomed to the field test procedures, as they are
part of their usual fitness assessment programme. In
June (before the play-off phase), they also completed
an incremental treadmill test for the determination of
maximal oxygen uptake (V_ O2max). All participants
were habituated to treadmill running as they
extensively used it during the summer pre-competitive training period. The highest heart rate reached
during the laboratory or field tests was considered to
be the maximal heart rate. The Yo-Yo test consisted
of 20-m shuttle runs performed at increasing speeds,
either with 10 s of active recovery between runs
(intermittent recovery version) or continuously (endurance version) until exhaustion. The audio-cues of
the Yo-Yo endurance test were recorded on a CD
(www.teknosport.com, Ancona, Italy) and broadcast
using a portable CD player (Philips, Az1030 CD
player, Netherlands). The test ended when the
participant either stopped voluntarily or twice failed
to reach the front line in time with the audio cue.
Maximal oxygen uptake was determined using an
incremental running test on a motorized treadmill
(RunRace, Technogym, Gambettola, Italy) at an
inclination of 1%. The test began at 9 km h71 and
the speed was increased by 1 km h71 every minute
so that exhaustion was reached in 8 – 12 min.

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205

210

215

220

225

Soccer-specific aerobic training

230

235

240

245

250

255

260

265

270

275

280

Expired gases were analysed using a breath-bybreath automated gas-analysis system (VMAX29,
Sensormedics, Yorba Linda, CA). The flow, volume,
and gas analysers were calibrated before each test
following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Physiological measures
Heart rate was recorded every 5 s during each
training session using short-range telemetry heart
rate monitor systems (VantageNV, S710, and
Xtrainer models, Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland)
with individually coded heart rate transmitters to
avoid interference. To reduce heart rate recording
error during training, all players were regularly asked
to check that their heart rate monitors were
functioning correctly. Operators were at hand to
solve problems such as erroneous heart rate values or
technical/transmission problems. After each training
session, the heart rate data were downloaded to a
portable PC using dedicated software and subsequently exported and analysed by one of the authors
using the Excel XP software program (Microsoft
Corporation, USA). The mean heart rates of the
three 4-min exercise bouts were used for the analysis.
Capillary blood samples (5 ml) were taken from an
earlobe within a minute of the end of the last bout of
the small-sided game and immediately analysed for
lactate using several portable amperometric microvolume lactate analysers (LactatePro, Arkray, Japan).
Before each test, the analysers were calibrated
following the manufacturer’s instructions. The portable blood lactate analyser used in this study has
been reported to be reliable and valid (Pyne, Boston,
Martin, & Logan, 2000).
Immediately after each game, all players were
asked to state their mean perceived exertion relative
to all three bouts of the game just completed, using a
printout of Borg’s CR10 scale (Borg, 1998). All
athletes had been habituated to this scale before the
start of the study and followed standardized instructions for rating perceived exertion (Borg, 1998).
To limit the influence of diet on the variables
analysed, especially blood lactate concentration, the
players were asked to follow nutritional guidelines
supplied by the researchers. A generic weekly
nutritional plan was developed to ensure an adequate
carbohydrate intake (50 – 60% of total energy intake)
(Kirkendall, 1993). However, no diet log was
recorded by the athletes. During the small-sided
games and the training sessions, the players were
allowed to drink ad libitum.
Statistical analyses

285

The data are reported as means+standard deviations
(s). A three-way fully repeated measures analysis of

3

variance (ANOVA) was used on each dependent
variable (heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and
RPE). The independent variables included three
within-participant factors: (1) exercise type with four
levels (three-, four-, five-, six-a-side), (2) encouragement with two levels (with and without), and (3) field
dimensions with three levels (small, medium, large).
Effect sizes (Z2) were also calculated and values of
0.01, 0.06, and40.15 were considered small, medium, and large respectively (Cohen, 1988). When a
significant F-value was found, multiple pair-wise
contrasts were applied.
Reproducibility was determined using Bland and
Altman’s (1995) limits of agreement. Reference lines
were determined as the mean difference+1.96
standard deviations (Bland & Altman, 1995). Typical error expressed as a coefficient of variation (CV)
was also calculated (Hopkins, 2000). The standard
deviation expressed as a coefficient of variation of the
different small-sided games completed by the players
was used as a measure of inter-participant exercise
intensity variability.
Statistical significance was set at P50.05. The
Bonferroni procedure for controlling the Type I error
rate was used. The resulting criterion alpha levels
were P50.017 for the main factors of the repeated
measures analyses of variance, and P50.008,
P50.017, and P50.05 for post-hoc multiple comparisons applied to the factors exercise type, field
dimensions, and encouragement respectively. Finally, the criterion alpha level used to individuate
significant bias from the Bland and Altman limits
of agreement was P50.001. The statistical analyses
were performed using the software package STATISTICA (6.0 version, StatSoft, Tulsa, OK).

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300

305

310

315

320

Results
Participants
To examine the effects of exercise type, field
dimensions, and coach encouragement on exercise
intensity (heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and
RPE), players with at least one trial for factor level
were included (n ¼ 20). For the determination of
exercise intensity reproducibility, players with two
trials of the same factor level completed within one
week were selected (n ¼ 17).
Laboratory and field tests
The total distance covered by the players (n ¼ 20)
during the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test increased between the three test sessions from
1986+334 m in September to 2117+380 m in
February and to 2132+3z80 m in May (P50.01).
The February and May distances did not differ from

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1
335

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4

E. Rampinini et al.

each other (P40.05). Similarly, the total distance
covered during the Yo-Yo endurance test increased
from 1113+251 m in September to 1576+300 m in
February and to 1606+281 m in June (P50.001).
The February and June distances did not differ from
each other (P40.05). The maximal oxygen uptake of
soccer players (n ¼ 20) measured during the incremental treadmill test in the laboratory was
56.3+4.8 ml kg71 min71. Maximal heart rate did
not change during the season [191+9, 190+8, and
190+10 beats min71 in September, February, and
May/June respectively (P ¼ 0.95)]. Mean maximal
heart rate during the laboratory and field tests did
not differ (P ¼ 0.75).

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355

Physiological responses to small-sided games
360

Data relating to the physiological responses to each
small-sided game are shown in Table II, while the
results of post-hoc analyses are shown in Table III.
No interactions between factors were observed
(P40.15). There was a main effect of exercise type
(P50.017) for heart rate (Z2 ¼ 0.456), blood lactate
concentration (Z2 ¼ 0.323), and RPE (Z2 ¼ 0.772).
Post-hoc analyses revealed that three-a-side was more
intense than both four- and five-a-side, with no
difference between the latter two. Conversely, both
four- and five-a-side led to more marked responses
than six-a-side for all three physiological measures of
intensity. There was also a main effect of field
dimensions (P50.017) on heart rate (Z2 ¼ 0.321),
blood lactate concentration (Z2 ¼ 0.331), and RPE
(Z2 ¼ 0.640). Post-hoc analyses showed that heart
rate and blood lactate concentration were higher
during small-sided games played on a large pitch
than on medium-sized and small ones. There was no
difference in RPE between medium and large
pitches, both of which resulted in higher ratings than
the small pitch. The results of the ANOVA also

365

370

375

380

3

demonstrated that intensity was higher for heart rate
blood
lactate
concentration
(Z2 ¼ 0.668),
(Z2 ¼ 0.764), and RPE (Z2 ¼ 0.976) when the coaches provided encouragement.

405

Inter-participant variability and reproducibility of
physiological responses to small-sided games
Reproducibility (intra-participant variability) of soccer-specific drills is summarized in Tables IV and V.
The reproducibility for heart rate, RPE, and blood
lactate concentration expressed both as limits of
agreement and coefficients of variation was higher for
small-sided games with encouragement than without
encouragement. Similarly, more intense types of
exercise (e.g. three-a-side) appear to be more
reproducible than small-sided games played at a
lower intensity (e.g. six-a-side). Field dimensions do
not appear to affect reproducibility.
Inter-participant variability expressed as coefficients of variation is reported in Table II. The
greatest inter-participant variability in the selected
markers of exercise intensity was for six-a-side games.
In contrast, the smallest coefficients of variation were
observed for three-a-side games. Across all smallsided games examined, the smallest inter-participant
variability was observed for heart rate, followed by
RPE, and then blood lactate concentration.

Heart rate (% of maximum)
Games

Dimensions

Three-a-side

We have described for the first time the effects of
exercise type, field dimensions, and coach encouragement on the intensity of small-sided games as
measured by heart rate, blood lactate concentration,
and RPE. Our results are in line with anecdotal
reports from players and coaches that field

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425

Blood lactate concentration
(mmol l71)

435

440

RPE (CR10)

CV

Without

CV

With

CV

Without

CV

With

CV

Without

CV

Small
Medium
Large

89.5+2.9
90.5+2.3
90.9+2.0

3.1
2.5
2.2

87.6+1.7
88.6+2.9
89.1+1.8

1.9
3.2
1.9

6.0+1.8
6.3+1.5
6.5+1.5

29.8
23.6
22.1

4.4+1.1
4.6+1.0
5.0+1.5

23.8
21.8
27.9

8.1+0.6
8.4+0.4
8.5+0.4

7.5
4.1
4.4

6.6+0.4
7.0+0.6
7.2+0.7

6.6
8.7
9.7

Four-a-side

Small
Medium
Large

88.7+2.0
89.4+1.8
89.7+1.8

2.2
2.0
2.0

86.5+3.4
86.7+3.0
87.2+2.8

3.8
3.4
3.1

5.3+1.9
5.5+1.8
6.0+1.6

35.6
31.5
26.6

4.2+1.6
4.3+1.4
4.7+1.2

37.0
30.5
24.8

7.6+0.5
7.9+0.5
8.1+0.5

6.0
6.3
6.0

6.3+0.5
6.6+0.6
6.8+0.5

8.4
8.8
7.2

Five-a-side

Small
Medium
Large

87.8+3.6
88.8+3.1
88.8+2.3

4.0
3.5
2.5

86.0+4.0
86.1+3.7
86.9+3.2

4.6
4.2
3.6

5.2+1.4
5.0+1.7
5.8+1.6

25.7
32.6
26.7

3.9+0.9
4.1+1.4
4.6+1.7

22.9
33.8
36.5

7.2+0.9
7.6+0.6
7.5+0.6

12.4
7.3
7.9

5.9+0.7
6.2+0.8
6.2+0.6

11.6
12.6
9.6

Six-a-side

Small
Medium
Large

86.4+2.0
87.0+2.4
86.9+2.4

2.2
2.6
2.7

83.8+5.0
85.1+3.3
85.0+3.6

5.8
3.7
4.2

4.5+1.5
5.0+1.6
4.8+1.5

32.0
31.7
30.8

3.4+1.0
3.9+1.4
3.6+1.5

28.8
34.8
39.2

6.8+0.6
7.3+0.7
7.2+0.8

9.0
8.7
11.3

4.8+0.9
6.0+1.4
5.9+0.5

17.2
23.4
8.3

395

415

Physiological responses to small sided-games

With

390

410

430

Discussion

Table II. Physiological responses to small-sided games with and without coach encouragement (mean+s).

385

400

445

450

455

5

Soccer-specific aerobic training

3

Table III. Physiological responses to small-sided games according to exercise type, field dimensions, and coach encouragement.

460

465

Main factors

Levels

Exercise type

(3)
(4)
(5)
(6)

Post-hoc test
Field dimensions

Post-hoc test
Encouragement

470

Three-a-side
Four-a-side
Five-a-side
Six-a-side

(S) Small
(M) Medium
(L) Large
(W) With
(WO) Without

Post-hoc test

515

Heart rate
(% of maximum)

Blood lactate
concentration
(mmol l71)

RPE (CR10)

89.4+2.3
88.0+2.6
87.4+3.5
85.7+3.4
344 ¼ 546***
87.0+3.6
87.8+3.3
88.0+3.1
S ¼ M5L**
88.7+2.8
86.5+3.5
W4WO*

5.5+1.6
5.0+1.7
4.8+1.6
4.2+1.5
344 ¼ 546***
4.6+1.6
4.9+1.6
5.1+1.7
S ¼ M5L**
5.5+1.7
4.2+1.4
W4WO*

7.6+0.9
7.2+0.9
6.8+1.0
6.3+1.2
344 ¼ 546***
6.7+1.2
7.1+1.1
7.2+1.1
S5M ¼ L**
7.7+0.8
6.3+0.9
W4WO*

2, effect size: values of 0.01, 0.06, and40.15 were considered small, medium, and large respectively (Cohen, 1988).
*P50.05;**P50.017;***P50.008.

520

525

530

475
Table IV. Reproducibility of small-sided games with coach encouragement and indications.

Heart rate (% of maximum)

480
Field dimensions

485

490

495

Blood lactate concentration
(mmol l71)

Three-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Four-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Five-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Six-a-side
Small
Medium
Large

Bias+random error

535
RPE (CR10)

CV

Bias+random error

CV

Bias+random error

CV

0.6+5.4
70.3+4.9
0.6+5.8

2.2
2.0
2.4

70.1+1.6
0.0+1.6
70.1+2.0

10.4
11.3
13.0

0.2+1.8
70.3+1.3
0.3+1.5

8.9
5.9
7.1

0.3+6.6
1.3+7.5
1.7+6.1

2.7
3.1
2.5

0.4+2.6
70.3+2.0
0.1+1.8

16.5
17.6
12.5

70.3+1.8
70.8+1.9
70.1+1.2

9.4
8.9
5.5

72.2+6.7
71.5+7.2
71.5+10.4

2.8
3.0
4.3

0.1+2.7
70.5+2.5
70.1+2.5

21.0
18.9
15.9

70.1+3.4
0.2+2.4
0.3+2.5

21.4
13.1
13.2

1.2+11
0.7+8.5
2.2+11.2

4.7
3.6
4.8

0.4+2.7
0.8+2.7
70.3+2.6

21.8
22.3
17.5

70.1+2.8
70.2+2.3
0.1+2.9

16.9
12.6
16.6

540

545

550

Note: Bias and random error are calculated using Bland and Altman’s limits of agreement (CI 95%), while typical error is expressed as
coefficients of variation (CV).

555

500

505

510

dimensions, exercise type, and coach encouragement
affect the physiological responses to small-sided
games. In addition to providing quantitative data
and experimental confirmation of these reports, we
show that the effect of each factor is cumulative with
no interaction between any of the factors examined.
The higher exercise intensity we observed for
three-a-side compared with six-a-side might be due
to the players’ having more possession of the ball.
Balsom (1999) reported a three-fold increase in the
number of ball possessions per player during 20 min
of three-a-side compared with seven-a-side play. As
running with the ball requires greater energy

expenditure than running without the ball, this could
explain the higher exercise intensity (Reilly & Ball,
1984). However, to isolate the effect of number of
players per se on exercise intensity, the playing area
should be kept constant. In the present study,
playing area was altered with a change in the number
of players. We decided to do so to increase the
external validity of our investigation. In fact, the
playing areas associated with each exercise type
are similar to those most frequently prescribed by
coaches. Because of this, the reader should not
interpret our results as the effect of varying the
number of players per se.

560

565

570

6

E. Rampinini et al.
Table V. Reproducibility of small-sided games without coach encouragement and indications.
Blood lactate concentration
(mmol l71)

Heart rate (% of maximum)

575

580

585

590

Field dimensions
Three-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Four-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Five-a-side
Small
Medium
Large
Six-a-side
Small
Medium
Large

Bias+random error

630

RPE (CR10)

CV

Bias+random error

CV

Bias+random error

CV

70.1+7.1
0.3+8.4
70.1+7.3

3.0
3.5
3.0

70.4+2.7
0.1+2.8
70.2+2.8

23.2
22.0
20.5

70.4+1.7
70.4+1.2
70.6+2.1

10.2
6.2
12.9

70.1+8.8
0.9+6.6
70.4+7.6

3.7
2.8
3.3

0.5+2.8
0.3+3.0
0.7+2.9

30.2
29.2
27.4

70.3+1.9
0.0+1.9
0.0+1.4

11.8
11.3
8.3

0.2+6.8
71.7+9.2
70.8+10.4

2.9
4.0
4.4

0.5+3.3
70.2+2.5
70.8+2.8

38.4
29.7
22.1

70.4+2.9
1.1+2.9
70.4+2.7

22.1
21.7
18.2

0.2+11.7
70.4+12.3
70.7+11.9

5.2
5.4
5.2

70.4+2.3
70.1+2.2
70.1+2.9

28.5
23.7
43.7

70.2+2.8
1.9+3.5
70.7+2.2

25.8
31.9
15.0

635

640

645

Note: Bias and random error are calculated using Bland and Altman’s limits of agreement (CI 95%), while typical error is expressed as
coefficients of variation (CV).

650
595

600

605

610

615

620

625

Varying field dimensions also induced different
physiological responses. Specifically, small-sided
games played on a larger pitch were more intense
than the same drills played on smaller pitches. The
influence of changing playing area on intensity of
small-sided games has previously been reported
(Aroso, Rebelo, & Gomes-Pereira, 2004; Balsom,
1999). For example, Balsom (1999) suggested that
during four-a-side games, an intensity similar to that
in three-a-side games could be reached by increasing
the playing area. The results of the present study
confirm this suggestion, as the exercise intensity of
three-a-side games on a small pitch was similar to
that of four-a-side games on a larger playing area.
Our findings are in line with those of Hoff et al.
(2002), who suggested using encouragement to
increase exercise intensity during small-sided games.
This effect could be very important from a practical
point of view because the external motivation
provided by coach supervision has been shown to
achieve greater gains and training adherence during
resistance training (Coutts, Murphy, & Dascombe,
2004; Mazzetti et al., 2000).
Importantly, the mean intensity of all small-sided
games included in this study is within the range
classified as high by Bangsbo (2003). Based on effect
size comparisons, the factor that had the greatest
influence on the physiological responses to smallsided games was encouragement, followed by exercise type and field dimensions. Although
statistically significant and large, the effect of each
factor in isolation was of relatively minor physiological importance. However, by combining these

factors it is possible to obtain vastly different exercise
intensities. For instance, during three-a-side matches
played on a large pitch with coach encouragement,
players achieved 91% of their maximal heart rate,
had a blood lactate concentration of 6.5 mmol l71,
and reported an RPE of 8.5 on the CR10-scale. In
contrast, during six-a-side matches on a small pitch
with no coach encouragement, mean heart rate fell to
83.8% of maximum, blood lactate concentration was
3.6 mmol l71, and the RPE was 4.8. This is only an
example of how a coach can modulate exercise
intensity of small-sided games by different combinations of these three factors.
While generic and specific aerobic training at
intensities close to or above 90% of maximal heart
rate are known to enhance aerobic fitness and soccer
performance (Helgerud et al., 2001; Impellizzeri
et al., 2005), the effects of aerobic training at a lower
intensity are not known and should be investigated in
future studies.
Reproducibility (intra-participant variability)
and inter-participant variability of the intensity
of small sided-games
Although knowledge of the mean exercise intensity
of various small-sided games is useful for coaches
and sport scientists, the reproducibility and interparticipant variability of these drills are important to
verify whether the physiological strain is consistent
within and between soccer players.
Although the reproducibility of the intensity of
small-sided games in this study could be interpreted

655

660

665

670

675

680

Soccer-specific aerobic training
685

690

695

700

705

710

715

720

725

730

735

740

as poor to moderate, our findings for heart rate and
RPE were similar to those reported by WergelKolmert, Wise´n and Wohlfart (2002) during incremental tests performed in controlled laboratory
conditions on a cycle ergometer. In fact, expressing
the random error as a percentage of the mean, they
reported values of 14 and 43% for heart rate and
RPE respectively during submaximal cycling. Expressing reproducibility in the same way, our mean
values were 10% (range 5 – 14%) for heart rate and
33% (range 15 – 58%) for RPE. Similarly, a recent
study showed a 27% mean typical error for blood
lactate concentration during incremental testing on a
treadmill (Saunders, Pyne, Telford, & Hawley,
2004). This is similar to the mean coefficient of
variation found in the present study. In agreement
with our findings, both of these studies showed better
reproducibility for heart rate and RPE when the
exercise intensity was high.
The intra-participant variability in blood lactate
concentration was generally higher than that for heart
rate and RPE. This could be due to methodological
factors. For example, blood lactate concentration
was measured only at the end of the last bout of each
small-sided game, and thus could mainly have
reflected the anaerobic contribution of the last
minutes of exercise (Bangsbo, Norregaard, & Thorso, 1991). As a consequence, the different
distribution of exercise intensity among the three
exercise bouts is likely to have had a greater effect on
the reproducibility of blood lactate concentration
than mean heart rate. Furthermore, while heart rate
increases linearly with exercise intensity, blood
lactate concentration increases exponentially. For
this reason, at the relatively high intensity induced by
the small-sided games in this study, small changes in
exercise intensity resulted in marked variations in
blood lactate concentration but not in heart rate.
Because a high involvement of this energy system is
necessary to induce adaptations of glycolytic or
buffering muscle capacity (Weston, Wilson, Noakes,
& Myburgh, 1996), further studies are necessary to
improve the sensitivity of assessments of anaerobic
contributions during small-sided games.
The reproducibility and inter-participant variability for RPE were greater than those for blood lactate
concentration but smaller than those for heart rate.
This might be related to the multifactorial nature of
RPE, which is mediated not only by physiological but
also psychological factors (Borg, Hassmen, & Lagerstrom, 1987; Morgan, 1994).
In conclusion, this study demonstrates that exercise intensity in small-sided soccer games can be
manipulated by varying the type of exercise, field
dimensions, and whether the coach provides encouragement. By using different combinations of
these factors, coaches can modulate exercise

7

intensity within the high-intensity zone and, by doing
so, control the training stimulus. Despite obvious
difficulties in standardization (variable external load
and environmental influences), the reproducibility of
intensity of small-sided games compares well with
cycle ergometry and treadmill running in the
laboratory. Therefore, small-sided games can be
used reliably to stimulate physiological adaptation
and performance improvement as suggested by our
recent training study (Impellizzeri et al., 2005).

745

750

Acknowledgements
We would like to thank D. Carlomagno, A. Coutts,
A. Morelli, M. Iaia, D. Ferrari Bravo, R. Sassi, A.
Tibaudi, and V. Bertarini for their technical support,
the management of the team, and all the participants.
We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers
for their valuable comments and suggestions.

755

760

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